Making It Through: A Conversation with Kelly J. Baker
Kelly J. Baker’s Final Girl is a collection of essays that explores the issues of trauma, mental illness, and grief. Baker digs into her childhood trauma and examines how it has shaped who she is today, and notes that writing this book has allowed her to change her personal story to one of survival rather than of being broken. Her writing attempts to normalize discussing these issues and make them a part of everyday life.
Baker is the author of four additional books: Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (University Press of Kansas, 2011), Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces (Blue Crow Books, 2017), Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labor in Academia (Blue Crow Books, 2018), and The Zombies Are Coming!: The Realities of the Zombie Apocalypse in American Culture, Revised and Expanded Edition, (Blue Crow Books, August 2020). She has won the American Library Association Choice Award (2012), and the Foreword INDIES Gold Award for Women’s Studies (2018). She is the editor for Women in Higher Education and The National Teaching and Learning Forum. She lives in Florida with her partner and two children, and is working on a new series of essays about endings and beginnings.
I spoke recently with Kelly about Final Girl, bravery, likability, and what it was like being a survivor in the week before the US election.
The Rumpus: What motivated you to write this book?
Kelly J. Baker: I feel like my books never start out as books. I don’t have a clear-cut idea that it will be a book. I write essays and realize I’ve been circling an idea. I didn’t think I’d write about trauma/grief, but I felt like I fell into it; the topic got caught in my brain and I just had to follow it.
Rumpus: In 2018, Lacy M. Johnson wrote an essay for Tin House entitled “On Likability.” In it, she writes: “a criticism waged against my memoir was that my ‘narrator’ (which… is me) isn’t likable, that I write things that make my readers uncomfortable and that I make choices with which my readers disagree.” Did you worry about your likability when writing this essay collection?
Baker: Throughout writing this collection I had moments where I thought, if I tell this story the way it actually happened I don’t look so great. This is not my best self. It’s not the self I want to represent to the world. There are moments when I am downright unlikable. I did think about that and what it means to be unflinchingly honest about yourself, to stand in front of a reader and say, “sometimes I get it right but sometimes I don’t and I’m not a nice person.” That is tough to manage, and it’s remarkably gendered, that women are supposed to somehow be likable and friendly and we can connect with them in some way, and men get to be more complicated. They can be tough and gruff and hard to deal with and that’s somehow admirable.
Anyhow, I just had to decide that I didn’t really care if people really liked me or not. Which is a hard decision to come to because I tend to be a people-pleaser, and in the book I’m like “here I am” in some of the most terrible moments of my life, and I realize that readers are going to make judgements about that. Oftentimes what I found was that essays didn’t work unless I told the truth about myself, even when it’s not pretty.
Rumpus: I think writing a memoir can be a draining experience because to tell the truth you have to dig deeply to get to the meat of your story. How did you make yourself dig deeply enough to tell your story, and how did you know when you’d reached the right depth and not skated on the surface of an issue?
Baker: Part of how I knew if an essay worked was how much I had to recover from the self-reflection that I did to write it. For some of them, it was easier to dig into the story because it felt like it happened so long ago. It wasn’t fresh; it wasn’t that present. But other essays, particularly when I’m talking about coming to terms with my mental illness, which is remarkably fresh because this is something I deal with every day, those would lay me on the floor. I was like, okay, I’ve written this paragraph I’m just going to lie here and see if I can convince myself to get back up. The emotional work was so hard.
To be honest and to see how I had avoided things, and how I had made decisions that were harmful to myself, made those essays really tough to write. There are people who say, “how hard is memoir; you just write about what happened to you.” But I don’t think people realize the level of brutal honesty you have to have about yourself and your willingness to really say some of the really terrible stuff that you either do to yourself or other people do to you. That emotional work is very exhausting. There were essays that I thought I was going to include in this collection, which I started and then quickly realized that to actually dig into them was maybe not worth my mental health. Those were essays I shelved. But sometimes that work needs to be done, because the beauty of memoir is that we can see ourselves in other people’s lives, and feel things in relation to them, and realize that those feelings aren’t rare; they’re not some sort of commentary on us as people. Some of these experiences are very common but they’re just so hard and we don’t talk about them.
Rumpus: Along the likability vein, were you concerned about how your family would respond to the book?
Baker: Oh yes. The running joke in my house is, “maybe we just don’t tell my mom that this book exists. Let’s just pretend that this thing I’m working on isn’t a thing and she’ll never know about it.” [Laughter] But of course she knows about it. I did have these deep, deep concerns about family members reading about stuff that they had no knowledge of. I was a kid of divorce so I had two separate lives. They knew what was going on on one side of it but had no idea about the other side of it. And so I have a real nervousness that if my mother picks this up we’re going to have a hard conversation about what it means. It’s not personal; it’s me working through what this means for me, and I’m okay, I turned out fine—we know the end of the story is good. But yes, every once in a while someone will say, “what happens when one of your kids gets older and picks this up,” and I’m like, “I can’t think about that today.”
In our house, we’re pretty honest about mental illness. My kids understand that I take medication, they have some understanding of what I suffer through that’s age-appropriate for them. But my childhood stuff—do I want them to know this about me? That little girl was someone different. Who they’re interacting with now is someone who has been able to integrate that experience in some way, but for them to see me like that is such a strange and terrifying concept to me. There’s this interesting vulnerability that you can have with a reader you don’t see versus the vulnerability you can have with your family. Because these stories I’m sharing are not pleasant, but I don’t want them to think of me that way because I am no longer in those situations. It’s kind of funny because my father-in-law asked, “Can I buy this and read it?” and my partner said, “How about you buy it because you support Kelly but you don’t read it.” [Laughter]
Rumpus: Have people told you that you’re brave for writing this book? I’m thinking here about your essay about being brave.
Baker: It’s strange, because I don’t feel like I’m being particularly brave writing about this stuff. That’s not what I went in to do, thinking I’m going to tackle this topic and somehow I’m being courageous. It was more like “this is something I need to say.” I love the bravery essay because it’s about my kids learning about what it means to be brave in this world, too, and—like them—I’m not being brave. I’m an anxious person; the world is terrifying. In the stereotypical sense, I didn’t think this book was brave. In the idea that bravery means that we do stuff that we’re afraid of, and that we may be terrified of but we manage to do them anyway, then yes, that would count towards bravery.
I always get the sense when someone tells me I’m brave that they’re thinking, Oh my god, I can’t believe you’ve written this. I don’t think all of them mean that, but there’s that I wouldn’t have done it that you can kind of hear but they don’t actually say. It’s a complicated relationship, in that when we define bravery in that small way—small “b” bravery—when we keep going even when we’re scared or we don’t know how things will turn out, that’s the everyday bravery that we need more of, rather than the superhero version that we default to.
Rumpus: In a 2015 essay for American Scholar, Emily Fox Gordon writes, “[my colleague] defended the proposition that writing can and should be taught as a purely therapeutic exercise. I held that it should be taught as art… therapy should be secondary to the central aim of creating art.” Would you classify your book as therapy or art?
Baker: Can it be both? It’s interesting when we try to make these distinctions that somehow writing could be a pure art form separate from our human concerns. Something we created away from the messiness of us figuring out our lives. For me, writing has always been therapeutic; it’s a way for me to think, analyze, and process in a way that I can’t if I’m saying it out loud to someone else. There’s something about being able to write through a thing that’s usually helpful to me. And that’s fine—I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that; I don’t think it makes it less artistic; I don’t think it detracts from the craft in some way. But it’s useful for many of us to tell these stories from our own experiences rather than the experiences of others. It gives us a chance to have agency over our stories. And that’s hugely powerful and helpful for us as people. In higher-education circles people say, “I’m teaching students; I’m not leading some kind of group therapy.” But we’re humans, we’re embodied, we have these experiences, we have traumas, and teaching can’t be separate from the folks that are sitting in front of you. Being attuned to the fact that we’re all messy humans who have messy lives isn’t therapy, it’s just being good people—recognizing the humanity in others and recognizing that this makes our interactions more complex and fraught, but it also makes those interactions more intimate and empowering, too. So, I’m always kind of skeptical when people want to evenly divide these sorts of things.
Rumpus: Your writing is full of down-to-earth analogies, from managing mental illness being like routine maintenance on an outdoor pool to anxiety being like well-trodden paths in your mind. Do you do this purposefully to make mental health issues understandable to a broader audience?
Baker: I make decisions to use examples and metaphors that are easy to hold on to. Part of this is I want folks to understand the mundaneness of mental illness. This is not really the extraordinary representation of mental illness that we have on TV or in the movies. But it’s really mundane; it’s regular, it’s routine, it’s day in and day out. And so the analogies I wanted to use were the ones that would be familiar, like the walking path that’s familiar or comforting. In the instance of anxiety, though, it’s not comforting because I know where that path goes. It’s not necessarily pretty. Or the work I have to do to keep the damn pool clean which is such a hassle and it’s so constant, but I thought it was the most apt metaphor for the threat of depression and living with depression. You have to stay on top of it, and if you don’t things can slip, but sometimes things will just slip anyway because that’s the way depression works.
I wanted people to imagine their feet on the path and what it must be like when you’re on that circuit again, or when you try to clean the pool and stuff breaks because things always break. That low-level frustration that can build in the way that depression can build as you’re dealing with it. I wanted to normalize what it looks like to live with mental illness. Not the spectacle that some people imagine it to be, but what happens when you’re depressed, what it looks like. What it looks like when you’re anxious, like when my bones are vibrating.
Rumpus: In the introduction, you write, “your story belongs to you, so tell yourself the story that you need to hear about your strength and survival. Tell the story of who you’ve become and who you might eventually be.” Has writing this book helped you find your strength and discover the person who you’ve become?
Baker: One of the most interesting shifts for me when writing this book was to realize that the story that I had inside of my head was that somehow my childhood broke me and I was going to walk around wounded for the rest of my life and that would forever color everything. I was so broken that I wasn’t able to piece myself together. That story was very much from my abusers, to keep me in my place and under their thumb, but it became mine, a story I told myself over and over again. While writing this book, I realized that broken doesn’t necessarily mean broken irreparably; it doesn’t mean we can’t try to fix ourselves or mend or try to find a way to live with what has happened to us. It was interesting because I was able to say, no, no, no, let’s not look at things that broke me; let’s look at how I survived it. What did I do to make it through when the people who were supposed to love me really wanted to annihilate me? I realized halfway through the book that my story is wrong. I’ve been missing the real story which is: holy shit, how did that girl manage this, how did she get through this and get to be me? How did this happen?
So for those moments that I thought were moments of weakness, I was able to come back to and say, no, this is a moment of strength, this is a moment of getting through in the best way you can. They weren’t great circumstances, but wow to being able to survive this and still be standing as an adult. That’s a serious accomplishment. That was mind-blowing, when I realized wait, I’ve been telling this wrong. And this happens to us sometimes, that we tell stories about ourselves that are not helpful to us, that actively harm us, because we’re focusing on one component and we’re ignoring the really hard work of making it through when traumatic things happen or when we’re faced with incalculable loss. When we think about all the stuff we lost and we don’t necessarily think about what we gain as we move forward. It’s important that we find a way to shape our stories and tell stories that will help rather than hinder us. It’s hard to make that switch; especially when it’s your “old” story you keep coming back to, to recenter takes some work. That has been one of the most helpful things about writing this book.
Photograph of Kelly J. Baker by Chris Baker.